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Professor John Haldane: Those who say ‘families come in all shapes and sizes’ are subversives


(This is a summary of Professor John Haldane’s address to the annual conference of the Family Education Trust on 13 June 2015)


The oft-made claim that ‘families come in all shapes and sizes’ is not intended to be purely descriptive. People who use this expression are typically reacting against what they would regard as a privileging of the traditional family and what they perceive to be an oppression or stigmatisation of other families.  They are not merely describing the way things are as a matter of fact, but positively recommending a diversity of family forms.

Yet the very same people who say that we should not stigmatise certain types of relationships or that we should valorise a diversity of family lifestyles, are often very stringent in their demands when it comes to matters such as health, or notions of equality andjustice. They don’t tend to say, with a relaxed air: ‘Equality, or health, or the environment come in all shapes and sizes.’ Rather, they tend to have a strict notion of what is legitimate in terms of health or the environment. And they frequently want to use the power of the State to enforce certain policies.

What lies behind this is a certain normative view – not about how people live, but how they ought to live. Such people have a definite view about what constitutes a healthy life. They believe that it is the role of government to at least enable and support, if not to promote or constrain, the population in order to ensure that people do lead a healthy life. On matters of equality, justice and the environment, they don’t want to be relativists – they have very definite views.

The saying ‘families come in all shapes and sizes’ is part of an attempt to substitute one conception of family life for another. It is not just a matter of de-privileging the traditionalfamily, but about privileging certain other conceptions of family life.

The important question is not how social arrangements are, but how they ought to be. The issue that needs to be determined is, what is good for human beings in terms of social and family life?

‘Progressive consensus’

The expression ‘progressive consensus’ is frequently used, but in reality it tells us next to nothing about the specifics of a view. Rather like the term ‘shape’ it indicates a kind of subject but does not specify any particular content. ‘Shaped’ things may have very different shapes. Likewise ‘progressive’ policies may be very different in content. Hitler saw himself as a progressive. He was very concerned to overthrow certain traditional conceptions, including of the family, which he thought as unnecessarily constraining us and tying us to the past.

Mussolini and Stalin likewise viewed themselves as progressives. Of course those who now describe themselves in these terms would say that the policies they favour are quite different from those of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin but this shows that ‘progressive’ has no determinate content. What it does seems to have, however, is a certain aura of virtue: ‘progressive’ is good. Using the term ‘progressive consensus’, therefore, is an attempt to secure the victory of an argument by non-rational means. In both the referendum on Scottish independence and the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage, theterm ‘progressive consensus’ became a means of the speakers’ celebrating themselves and of denigrating others. Its use even became bullying and a means of trying to intimidate any opposition.

The animating force of history

Ideas are much less importantthan people think. Contrary to the conceit of intellectuals, history is notdriven by ideas. In the Preface to his Philosophy of Right, Hegel writes:

‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then is a form of life grown old. By means of philosophy it cannot be rejuvenated, but only understood… The owl of Minerva takes flight with the falling of the dusk.’

Philosophy, as the practice of understanding, conceptualises and gives an illuminating account of a reality that is already up and running. But arriving at that account takes time. By the time the philosophy of an idea has been formed, the idea has already been in existence for a long time and is probably complete. It makes no material difference to the total picture.

Hegel was not suggesting thatideas play no role in the construction of reality, but that they work themselves out in practice. If we want to understand the animating force ofhistory, then it lies in human action, which is frequently a response to events. The real drivers of history have been events such as famine, war, plague, disease, economic collapse and economic ascent.

In order to understand the sustained attack on the family over recent decades, we need to look not so much at ideas as the history itself.

Causes of change

The First World War is among the most determinative factors shaping the environment in which we live. It shattered people’s optimism and belief in the possibility of a certain kind of order and there was no time to rebuild society before the outbreak of the Second World War. In the post-war period, people felt that they were entitled to a break and so sought the removal of social constraints. A kind of careless partying began. The sexual revolution has to be understood in terms of this.

Intellectuals such as Freud, Marx and Nietzsche exerted some degree of influence on the social changes, but people’s lives on the ground were the real shaping influences. The changing practices of people made the revolutionary ideas of thinkers and philosophers more acceptable. It was comforting to hear that the changes that were taking place in society did not constitute social disintegration, but progress – that it was part of the forward movement of mankind. Similarly, amid the chaos of modern family life, many consider it a comforting validation to be assured that what we are witnessing is a celebration of diversity.

Increasing wealth and the culture of consumerism have also had a part to play in the social changes that haveaffected the family, as the culture of consumerism has extended across to aspects of lifestyle choice. The introduction of no-fault divorce is not unconnected with the mentality that if a product does not meet with the customer’s satisfaction, it can be returned. We became consumerists and then we found the word ‘consumerism’.

The same mindset is evident in claims by individuals that they have a ‘right’ to have a family and that the State must therefore provide children for them through adoption. In reality, no one has a ‘right’ to children. The right not to be interfered with in procreation is a liberty right, not a claims right – a right not to have somebody stopping you from doing something, not a right to have someone enable you to do something. But this language began not with homosexuals, but heterosexuals.

Post-war Britain has also seen a breakdown in authority against a background of rampant hedonism and narcissism. There has also been an advancement of childhood into early adulthood.

The word toleration has been reinterpreted. Toleration is the primary virtue in the context of disagreement or difference. It allows us to live with people with whom we disagree. But in recent years, toleration has shifted to become approbation and approbation has shifted to become celebration. Intolerance is now defined as refusing to celebrate something with which you disagree. It is a corruption of language. If we corrupt our language we corrupt our thought, and our thought is our bestchance to try to work out and understand important things about human life.

How should we respond?

G K Chesterton once said that in human affairs we must first identify the cure before we can identify the disease. Only when we have discovered what the healthy state or condition is can we hope to understand the condition we are actually in. Ill health is failing to meet the standard of, or deviating from, a state of health.

Generics (e.g. cats have tails) may have counter-instances (e.g. not all cats have tails), but counter-instances do not refute the generic. It remains true that cats havetails, even though some cats do not. Having a tail belongs to what it is to be a cat. A cat without a tail is in a state of privation with regard to something that cats have. Similarly blind people are not evidence against the claim that human beings are sighted. The blind person is in a state of deprivation with regard to some characteristic of human life.

Applied to the family, even though not every human being has a family, it remains part of the human form of life to exist in families. It is also part of the human form of life that human beings are completed in complementary reciprocal sexual relationships. The fact that not everyone shares those sexual attractions does not invalidate that.Children are shaped in the context of families that are the product of, andcontinue to be the expression of, complementary reciprocal sexual relationships.

We need to have confidence inthese generics. Psychologists tell us that children form generics from the age of two or three and they are very stable.

Two ways of knowing

Thomas Aquinas spoke of co-naturality. There are two ways of knowing something: by an outside theoretical study of something, or by living it. We have a great deal of knowledge about what it means to be human simply by virtue of being human.

To combat some of the destructive trends of our day, we need to have more confidence in the knowledge of what the human form of life is. This knowledge is available to us all. We should therefore be less intimidated by fancy theories and ideas. Human beings have been managing the business of living as human beings long before modern theories were constructed. Perhaps we have not always made a very good job of it, but that, too, is part of human nature.

Augustine spoke of the darkness of the intellect, the disturbance of the passions and the irresolution of the will. It is part of our condition that we find it very difficult to know the things that matter most. We find ourselves driven by passions that we recognise should not be moving us, and even when we have understood something and recognised the influence of the passions, we still find it very difficult to do what we know we ought to do. But one of the best structures for shaping people and countering these tendencies is the family.


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John Haldane
John Haldane
John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Texas, and Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews.

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